The current exhibition at SUNY Brockport's Tower Fine Arts Gallery, Illuminating Developments: Images, Objects, and the Use of Light, features the work of seven artists who rely on light as a physical part of the existence of their art.
Light, of course --- its presence or absence --- has played a significant role in both contemporary art practice and visual technology as well as in the history of visual culture in general. Ocular vision depends on light. What we see is literally right there in front of us, in our field of vision, because of some form of light. This light may be natural or it can be from one of a myriad of illuminating technologies that brings us out of the darkness.
Western culture has always put its faith in the metaphor of light with regard to knowledge, reason, and truth. For example, you could argue that the technological processes of photography are a direct result of the quest to reveal "the real."
Ever since the Renaissance, art, or more precisely, painting, has been in the service of our quest for documenting our worldview, and thus is also a way of certifying our knowledge and ourselves.
Interestingly, since the invention of photography, painting's raison d'etre has become compromised. Painting and what we call "modern" art are no longer tools that bring forth a picture of our collective reality. On the contrary, art, as we understand it today, is a tool of obfuscation, hiding, and ambiguity. Even the photograph in the post-photographic digital age has become an instrument that blurs "reality" and focuses on stories and pictures. Then again, perhaps it's the combination of story and picture that comprises reality --- or at least, a personal reality.
Frank Menair's untitled still images from his Project-O-Train are one version. Using a burst of electricity to illuminate a speeding Amtrak train in the dark of night, Menair projects a series of images and then photographs them while they remain visible on the body of the moving train. Looking a little like some wacky billboard, they are in fact photographic snippets pertaining to his own life. For Menair, "light, electricity, and trains operate in predictable directions." Add to this equation the fact that his father was a railroad builder and then it becomes clear why trains constitute a "backdrop of many events" of the "ever-present railroad/memory system" of life; his life.
Martin Brief's Lost is an installation based on the assumptions that belief systems are "founded on a written text" and that these "texts are designed to prove that the beliefs contained in them or associated with them are correct." Of course, just as literal or figurative enlightenment may or may not reveal knowledge, a similar conundrum arises when we start from the other end and try to use book knowledge not only as "proof" of our intellectual and spiritual enlightenment but also as a form of self-righteous praise.
To make his point, Brief suspended from the ceiling two rows of three small rectangular and rusted metal boxes. Each has a little window, which allows us to peek inside and ponder the tiny but towering stacks of paper "books." Heightening the experience is the slightly uncomfortable viewing angle: You have to stoop to see and it's a strain to look upwards toward the light.
In the end, it seems as if these contemporary, investigative applications ultimately coalesce around a loose but still palpable thread that weaves a cautionary tale about life itself.
Illuminating Developments: Images, Objects and the Use of Light through December 11 at the Tower Fine Arts Gallery on the SUNY Brockport Campus, 180 Holley Street. Gallery hours: Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. 395-5253